Jeffery A. Salter

“It had to be all or nothing,” Patel says of the decision to shutter his law practice. “My family thought I’d gone insane. I doubted myself, too, at times. But this business is all about passion — and I wanted to live, breathe and eat cigars.” He recalls talking it over with longtime friend and cigar aficionado Arnold Schwarzenegger at his former Austrian restaurant, Schatzi on Main, in Los Angeles. The future governor, no stranger to taking leaps of faith himself, encouraged Patel to follow his dream.

Jeffery A. Salter
Patel launched the Indian Tabac Cigar Company in 1996 with a series of nutty, medium-bodied smokes that were initially beset with quality issues. “We were letting other people make the cigars, and what happened was that when raw materials got low, they’d make substitutions. In wine, people expect the flavor to change from bottle to bottle. But cigar smokers crave consistency.” At the same time, he was facing heavy resistance in getting his products stocked on retail shelves. Hundreds of boutique brands were springing up to capitalize on the industry boom of the late ’90s, and nobody wanted to take a chance on an unknown. Patel tackled both by hitting the road, spending an average of 340 days a year overseeing manufacturing in Honduras, and visiting thousands of mom-and-pop retailers stateside to communicate his passion — a schedule he maintains to this day. Quality improved. Doors began to open. Indian Tabac was renamed Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, and in 2003 he launched the Vintage line, a series of rare, aged tobaccos that became a sensation. Production skyrocketed, new products like the creamy Connecticut Vintage 1999 and ?powerhouse Edge were introduced. Patel found himself in the catbird seat, enjoying larger profits than boutique companies without having to sacrifice innovation, a trick the major cigar conglomerates are still trying to replicate. But the cost of that success is not lost on him.

“Not being in a relationship feels like an empty hole in my life,” says Patel, who is single, as he observes the couples taking last puffs and finishing their drinks before the lounge closes for the night. “But I don’t believe you can chase perfection without making sacrifices.” Although Patel does date, not having the emotional support and balance a family provides weighs heavily on him. He considers for several moments before saying, “I’d do it again.”

Increasingly, Patel is turning to his brother, Nish, and his cousin Nimish Desai to handle the sales and production aspects of the business. The men have remained close since their days growing up in Green Bay, Wis., and working together affords them the opportunity to indulge in a passion that runs even deeper than cigars: the Green Bay Packers. Team paraphernalia is interspersed throughout the Rocky Patel offices, and staff know to give them a wide berth the morning after a loss. Patel moved from Mumbai to De Pere, Wis., with his family when he was 14 and found sports to be a means of building relationships with people across cultural and economic divides. He regards stogies in the same fashion.

“Whether you’re a blue-collar worker or a CEO, everyone’s equal sitting around enjoying a cigar,” he says. “My grandfather taught me that everyone has something to offer. I’ve learned just as much speaking with Barack Obama and Michael Jordan as I have hanging out in dive bars.” He laughs about the latter. “I try to go incognito sometimes — shades, a hat pulled down low, but it doesn’t work so well. Members of our little cult sniff me out.”

Drawing positive attention to the cigar smoker’s club, and specifically differentiating it from cigarettes, has become a major preoccupation of Patel’s. He was instrumental in reducing a proposed 6,000 percent tax increase on cigars as a result of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill, a move that would have destroyed the retail market and put him out of business with a swipe of a pen. “I went up to Capitol Hill basically out of fear. I’d hang out in the cafeteria, drinking Cokes until I was about to pee my pants, waiting for senators and congressmen to grab their lunch.” Eventually, the “pit bull from the cigar industry,” as he came to be known, was granted an audience with major proponents of the bill, including Senator Tom Harkin and Senator Harry Reid, and allowed to make his case. “We were the unintended consequence of this bill, and ultimately they saw that. We got it down to a 1,000 percent tax increase, [which is] still huge, but it allowed us to fight another day.

“People need to see cigars as an art form that’s been around for centuries,” he says.